Syria is collapsing – and could take Turkey and Europe with it

Whenever they appear, black swans are always unsettling. As defined by the Lebanese-American author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans are unexpected, hard-to-predict events that don’t fit the understood flow of history. In just the last week, there have been three.

In Turkey, the first attempted military coup for two decades was crushed. In France, a young man not on the radar of the intelligence services drove a truck through a Bastille Day crowd. In Britain, a little-known prime minister strode into office 14 days after declaring she would stand and three weeks after Britons voted to leave the European Union.

Individually, these events are shocking and surprising. Taken together, they contribute to a sense that the established order is quaking, that the expected flow of history can no longer be expected. These are unusual, unsettling days in global politics.

Yet these events are all linked. They are not happening in isolation but as a result of political stresses. They are happening more frequently because long-term stresses are coming together at weak points. The reasons for them are not easy to resolve and will be with us for many years to come.

Start with the Turkey coup. Although the actual coup came out of internal issues, the political climate was affected by the wider context of the Syrian civil war and the Kurdish bid for autonomy.

That civil war was itself affected both by climate change and political events in the wider Middle East. Those political events, the Arab Spring, were themselves affected by the global financial crisis. None of these events occurred in isolation.

The same is true for what happened in Nice. There is a direct link with the rise of ISIL in Syria, of course, but that rise was facilitated by the collapse of two states, Syria and Iraq, and the rise of a transnational, virulent form of violent jihad.

In Britain, the effect of the 2008 financial crisis and the perception of a refugee crisis from Syria brought about a momentum that resulted in Britain taking its most serious and significant decision since the Second World War.

If it seems Syria is the only linchpin and that without the Syrian revolution none of these political stresses would have existed, well, that is only an illusion.

By an accident of geography and history, Syria was the state most vulnerable to a collapse. It wasn’t more affected by climate change than others, nor was the political order more rigid or more likely to provoke an uprising, nor again were its people more susceptible to an insurgency. Rather, at that moment, it was the weak spot where many long-term events collided.

To see this more clearly, think of the analogy with coastal erosion. Long term stresses on all parts of the coastline – the effect of waves and weather, the stresses of traffic and development – come together at particular points and lead parts of the cliff to collapse. The collapse takes with it nearby parts of the cliff and weakens a much wider area. Before the collapse happens, however, it can be hard to see where the weak points are.

As true as that was for Syria – and history has given us the rare example of an experiment, because there were four other Arab Spring revolutions – it is also true for Turkey, France and Britain.

Yes, Turkey has been disproportionately stressed by the Syrian refugee crisis, but so has Lebanon. France has been disproportionately affected by ISIL attacks, but, while more French citizens have joined ISIL than elsewhere in Europe, it is not the largest contributor by population. Yes, the UK has always had an uneasy relationship with the European Union, but so has Greece.

The mistake would be to see these problems as discrete rather than interconnected. Politicians, in particular, seek to compartmentalise problems in their own countries, because it makes it easier to explain to an electorate and suggests a measure of control.

But these stresses are far more prevalent. Today it is Turkey, tomorrow it could be Greece or Lebanon. The effect of the Syrian civil war, to take just one example, is a real and powerful political stressor on all the countries of the Middle East and Europe. Its effect is incalculable, and will rear its head in unexpected ways, as it has in Turkey.

The way out is long. Political stresses on the scale of the Syrian civil war or transnational jihad or climate change can be overcome or their effects ameliorated. But doing so requires a recognition of the scale of the task and an awareness that in an interconnected world, events cannot be constrained by borders.

The shock waves from a collapsing Syria have reached every part of Europe and the Middle East. With judicious politics and diplomacy – and even the use of force – the war itself can be resolved. If not, then as with climate change, as with the financial crisis, as with the erosion of every piece of coast that faces an ocean, the consequences of the Syrian war cannot be contained.